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The global pandemic arrived like an uninvited whirlwind, causing devastation and mayhem on a scale not even the most pessimistic of people could have predicted. “It’s been devastating” says Francesca Bianco, speaking to me over Skype from her home in Italy. “This is something our business could never have imagined”.
Francesca and her husband Domenico own Puglia Kitchen1, a blossoming business that offers those holidaying in Italy an authentic Italian dining experience through cooking classes and private catering. Domenico is the chef at the heart of it all – born and raised in the rustic Puglian countryside, cooking with recipes passed down through generations of Biancos, and using fresh ingredients from the family’s farm.
With the travel industry on pause, the business has seen its customer base all but disappear. “We’ve been affected massively because our market is 95% tourists from outside Puglia and Italy, so the fact that there’s no non-essential travel allowed has had a huge impact.”
2020 will certainly be a year none of us will forget. Seemingly overnight, most of the world went into lockdown, and we were all left longing for the small joys we once took for granted. As we all hunkered down at home guarding our precious hauls of toilet paper, we turned our attention to online shopping, which we did in record numbers. Global e-commerce saw an enormous rise in demand as shopping habits changed and we rushed to buy fitness equipment, bread machines, and no doubt many more well-intentioned-but-destined-to-be-used-just-once products.
Dr. Andrew Kuo, assistant professor of marketing at Louisiana State University
For traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers, going digital to sell online seemed an obvious transition – with the ‘bricks & clicks’ model now a well-established practice. But for the millions of experience-based businesses across the world, adapting to lockdown has required a little more creativity. From virtual bars to online festivals; ballet classes on Zoom to piano lessons on YouTube – innovative thinking has kept things going. Even dating hasn’t been left behind – recently, Bumble partnered with Airbnb to host online experiences for daters to attend together.
The entertainment-experience sector has seemingly adapted well – with a ready-made audience of bored consumers eager for distraction. Secret Cinema3 is known for its sell-out immersive film events, where attendees can enjoy a screening in surroundings that use live music and props to reflect the setting of the film – in the case of the Star Wars event, lucky superfans got to mingle with actors dressed as stormtroopers. When normal business was suspended due to the pandemic, the company went to great lengths to replicate at least some of the magic of its events in people’s homes with the launch of its Secret Sofa series. Every Friday, it streamed a movie for fans to watch simultaneously – giving a feeling of togetherness whilst apart. In the run up to it, the company sent out character and costume ideas, activities, and suggestions for food and drink to enjoy whilst watching. Not to be outdone, the major movie studios cut deals with streaming giants such as Apple, Amazon and Sky to carry movie-theater releases for rental at higher prices than the norm.
If your taste is slightly more high-brow, there’s something for you too. London’s prestigious National Theatre4 has been releasing some of its recorded productions on YouTube through a new initiative, National Theatre at Home. The streamings have been attracting millions of viewers and, though they’re free to watch, many have voluntarily donated to the theater in support – something which executive director Lisa Burger says was invaluable at the time: “Whilst the National Theatre continued to face a precarious financial future, we felt able to make a payment to all artists involved, as we recognized a great many were also experiencing a particularly challenging time.”5
So, the entertainment-experience sector found its place online, giving people the escapism they so desperately desire during lockdown. But what of those offline businesses that sell services which require more face-to-face interaction? How did they continue operating during lockdown?
UK-based psychotherapist Anna Westropp6 speaks to me – over Zoom, naturally – from her home study, which now serves as the hub of her business. To stay connected with clients, she began holding her sessions over video call, something she had never done before. “It was really difficult at the beginning because not seeing someone face-to-face cuts off my ability to read their body language, so I feel like I’m working a lot harder to sense how they’re doing and responding to what we’re talking about.” Some of her clients struggled with the new setup too: “I lost clients at the beginning because they signed up for therapy in a room – the privacy and separateness of the space from their usual daily life was important to them. Some clients didn’t feel comfortable [attending a video call] while other people were in their house – it’s difficult when you’ve had a session where you’ve been crying to then go back and join the house without people asking questions, or feeling unable to separate from the therapy session.”
Yet, as time has gone on, Anna’s been able to find her groove with the online sessions and adapt to the 'new normal' of today. “Once I got to understand how to work with the new situation, it’s been good – I ensure my clients create space, go for a walk, or listen to music after a session to manage the transition and look after themselves. Plus, I’ve been able to reach my clients more flexibly and easily.” Likewise, her clients have discovered benefits too. “They can find it less intense and intimate. For those clients who feel anxious [attending face-to-face sessions], being in their own space has enabled them to go a little deeper and process more than they might usually do.”
And what of the future role of online to her business? “I feel I’ve broken potential barriers that I had originally felt would stand in the way of effective therapy work. Previously, I might have considered working online as a temporary option whilst people were away on short breaks but now I would feel comfortable seeing someone entirely online. It enables therapy to be more accessible for those who work unusual hours, who travel a lot and for those who simply can't get out very easily. It’s given me confidence to consider the option of doing talks and other support group work online too.”
Luke Buhl-Nielsen, Kry
As Anna’s experience shows, the human interaction required by so many of healthcare’s services can make them a challenge to transfer online, but during this time, necessity has given them a place. Globally, ‘digital Doctor’ apps – a relatively new technology – have seen a huge uptake in users. Luke Buhl-Nielsen is VP of operations at Swedish company Kry7, which allows paying customers to consult a qualified health professional within minutes via their smartphone. He says the pandemic has fast-tracked the sector’s legislation. “We made 10 years’ worth of progress on that front in a few weeks”8. The pandemic brought many new customers to the technology – those who may not have considered it before but will continue using it once they experience its benefits.
This new hybrid approach to experiential business is a common theme and one that all brands in this space should be looking to establish for the longer-term benefit of their company – broadening their reach beyond the local or visiting customer. Whilst it’s been a challenge for some, the pivot to online has been a smoother process for others.
Jonathan Saipe, Emarketeers
Emarketeers9, which provides face-to-face digital-marketing training courses, adapted quickly to the lockdown by making its content available as an online academy. Initially, the business focused its time on ensuring this change was relayed to potential customers. “Delivering online meant a big change to our messaging in ads and site metadata; we did a lot of SEO and PPC work”, founder Jonathan Saipe explained to me over email. “What has pleasantly surprised us is how we can deliver as good a learning experience online as we do offline. We are fully aware that concentration levels and distractions play a big role in online learning, so there's a strong chance that we will modify our content to be delivered in bite-sized chunks, rather than a full-day, should we continue to deliver online. The future role online will play in the business is dependent on what sort of world the pandemic leaves behind. If the ‘new normal’ means working remotely, then indeed our business model may permanently shift in favor of online delivery”, Saipe adds.
In fact, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for almost every industry. Back in Italy, Francesca and Domenico are re-assessing Puglia Kitchen’s online presence. “Unfortunately, we are not social media geniuses naturally, but what quarantine has forced us to do is think about ways that we can still reach potential customers.” They have started posting step-by-step video tutorials of Domenico cooking online for viewers to follow along with. “We’ve spent time thinking about recipes that people can make in their own homes with things they have in the cupboard. The videos give them an opportunity to learn a new skill. We’re not making any money from it – the videos we post online are purely for people’s enjoyment and a way for us to offer them something fun to do at a time when they have a lot of time on their hands and may be feeling anxious.”
Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, now is the time for businesses to prepare a long-term strategy. If you are an experience-based business, diversifying into an omni-channel model has many other positives. “One of the benefits is building a sense of community that is much stronger than we had before. Usually, we pride ourselves on being a business that gives people a digital detox – we’re based in the country with low Wi-Fi connection – but in this time we’ve learned online is an essential tool to reach the people that really love to follow us. We’re now looking at different online avenues that can potentially help us offer our services in the future. Airbnb, for example, has been offering online experiences during this time and we are considering setting ourselves up on it. That would allow people all over the world – even if they can’t afford to come to Puglia – to still have an Italian cooking experience that is much more authentic than anything else they would find online; to be transported to a real-life working farm in south Italy with a real chef.”
Of the future, Francesca predicts her business will continue to be a largely offline experience. “Contact and face-to-face relationships are so important to the Italian way of life and what we do at Puglia Kitchen. People are so tactile and warm here and that communication cannot simply be transferred online. We love to greet people and welcome them into our world – that’s where we get our passion from.” However, some of the new online activity will be staying. “I think we’ll continue doing what we’re doing online. We don’t know how long it will take to be back where we were – it may take a year; it may take two years. So, for that reason, we’ll absolutely keep exploring ways we can build the business online.”